Obama’s visit shows community’s pain is not forgotten

It was a moment of presence. On a day of fond memories and tears, a member of Congress leaned down to give a folded U.S. flag to a man whose wife had died in the Oso mudslide.

If nothing else, Rep. Suzan DelBene was there at the Darrington Community Center that rainy day. The 1st District congresswoman spoke briefly, then presented Gary “Mac” McPherson the flag at the April 5 memorial service for retired librarian Linda McPherson.

When people are in the depths of trauma and grief, mere presence matters. It is not as tangible as financial assistance, food or shelter, but being there is equally valuable. And it will not be forgotten.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Oso Tuesday said something that his April 2 declaration of a major disaster could not say. One month after the March 22 mudslide, the president’s afternoon in Oso said — in person — that the needs and pain of people who have lost so much are remembered at the nation’s highest level.

“The country is thinking about you, and has been since this tragedy occurred,” Obama said at the Oso Fire Station Tuesday.

That Obama came to say it face to face is now part of Snohomish County’s history. For grieving families and heroic rescue and recovery crews, it’s more than national news or local history. It is personal.

Obama’s disaster declaration makes federal funding available to people affected by the slide, through the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. That help can include money for rent, home repairs, unemployment payments, low-cost loans to cover uninsured-property losses, and other programs to help people and businesses recover from the devastation.

Those are critical needs. They aren’t the only needs.

On Jan. 20, two months before the Oso mudslide, New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled “The Art of Presence.” It was about a family that lost a 27-year-old daughter, Anna Woodiwiss, in a 2008 accident in Afghanistan, where she worked for a service organization. That was followed several years later by the severe injury, in a bicycle accident, of Anna’s sister Catherine.

Brooks’ column borrowed from a blog post Catherine Woodiwiss wrote in January for Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization. The subject of her piece was grief, and how to help people who are mourning.

Presence is a common theme in both articles. “Do be there,” Brooks wrote in The New York Times. “Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence.”

In her blog entry, Woodiwiss wrote that “If someone says they need space, respect that. Otherwise, err on the side of presence.”

Over the past month, we have seen and read about so many who have graced those suffering from the mudslide with their simple presence.

On the Monday after the tragedy, I was near the Highway 530 roadblock when a car carrying Gov. Jay Inslee went into the slide area from the west side. Those were early days of the recovery efforts. Inslee was there to learn about the disaster and promise help. And it mattered that he was there.

Nearly two weeks later, Inslee visited the home of a Darrington family grieving for a loved one lost in the slide. That visit meant a great deal to the family member who later described it.

What happened in Oso changed people and places forever. Over the past month, we have seen so much sadness, but also a strong spirit of generosity and unity. In his comments to first responders Tuesday, Obama spoke of Oso showing its strength, which he said is found in all American communities.

“We’re always reminded that we’re greater together,” the president said.

That the president came to see the place and meet the people is now part of this tragic story. Perhaps it’s the start of the healing chapter.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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